While the world of guitar rock, admittedly, is male-heavy, a number of female players have risen to the top over the years, proving women have just as much aptitude for the 6-string as their male colleagues. These women crushed instruments and eardrums in pursuit of a new way to make the guitar sing, scream, shout and move souls.
In this Top 10 list, Gibson.com pays respect to those pioneering players. Who are your top female strummers? Join the debate in the comments section below.
10. Joni Mitchell
Beginning her career as a folkie with an impressive armory of open tunings and evolving into a jazz-influenced player, Joni Mitchell brought a silky touch and smooth, bending voice to her pop-folk songs, with subjects that touched on everything from lost love to the government. Musicians of every genre – Prince, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan – count Mitchell among their key influences. Meditative and thoughtful, her songs helped create the flourishing style of early ‘70s California, and her songs scaled the charts, including “Help Me,” “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Free Man in Paris.”
9. Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt's honeyed voice, skillful slide guitar work and archetypal collection of folk, pop, blues, soul and R&B songs have made her one of the most hailed musicians of her generation. Though she was an industry favorite from the early ‘70s, Raitt didn’t reach the equivalent in commercial success until her tenth studio album, 1989’s Nick of Time. The #1-selling Billboard 200 album whirled her into the mainstream with captivating, flawlessly performed tracks “Have a Heart” and “Thing Called Love.” After multiple Grammy wins, platinum-selling albums and an induction into the Rock on the Roll Hall of Fame, Raitt has achieved the kind of widespread success fans and critics had expected for decades.
8. Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson's sweeping guitar work helped define ‘70s and ‘80s classic rock. As songwriter and guitarist for Heart, she brought loud-and-proud arena rock songs and high-volume power ballads to a hungry rock ‘n’ roll public. Wilson’s playing presented acoustic fingerstyle work in an electric environment, and it came together with her sister Ann’s muscular vocals. Forceful yet melodic rockers such as “Sing Child,” “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You” quickly coined the band “the female Led Zeppelin,” but Wilson’s knack for near-folk ballads made it clear she had her own identity and vision for Heart from the get-go.
7. Kaki King
Georgia-born solo guitarist Kaki King brings an illustrious fusion of jazz, punk and folk to her shows, not to mention a rare percussive technique and the use of unique tunings on acoustic and lap steel. That originality and imagination earned her the first-ever female “Guitar God” from Rolling Stone. As for collaborations, King has teamed with Eddie Vedder (for the soundtrack for the movie Into the Wild), Dave Grohl (on the Foo Fighters’ Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace) and co-produced a track for Miley Cyrus with Timbaland. Call King a new generation of guitar player, with an acoustic sound that’s full of tapped melodies and darting rhythms.
Swapping licks with Carlos Santana and sharing the stage, all too briefly, with Michael Jackson surely wasn’t enough for twenty-something guitarist Orianthi. The Australian-born, blonde-haired shredder was set to play lead guitar for the King of Pop’s ill-fated This Is It tour. After his untimely death, she came back as a singer-guitarist, touring the world to promote her debut Geffen release, Believe. The album’s title track hit the Billboard 100. Between lightning-fast guitar solos, the album goes from blues to jazz to pop-rock and has a wide scope of sounds proving Orianthi is the real thing.
5. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a gifted jazz guitarist and vocalist, and even though she spent years staking her claim in the gospel world, Tharpe never abandoned her jazz origins. A lively performer who often trifled with blues and swing, she brought spiritual music and soul into the mainstream by playing clubs and theaters, helping to spearhead the upsurge of pop-infused gospel. During World War II, Tharpe and the Golden Gate Quartet were the only American gospel acts to tape V-Discs for American militaries overseas. A prodigy who mastered guitar by age six, Tharpe’s legacy packs heaps of genuine feeling and tight musicianship.
4. Jennifer Batten
Guitar shredder and two-handed tapper Jennifer Batten's big career break happened in 1987, when she got a tip from a friend that Michael Jackson was holding auditions for a guitarist for his upcoming tour in support of Bad. Batten tried out on the last day, which gave her as much time as possible to master the King of Pop's music, and Jackson hired her has a touring guitarist for the next year-and-a-half. She toured with him on-and-off through the years, and in 1998, Jeff Beck asked Batten to join his backing band. Since linking with Beck, Batten has played on 1999's Who Else! and 2001's You Had It Coming, plus several tours.
3. Mary Ford
Singer and guitarist Mary Ford and her guitarist husband Les Paul, ruled the ‘50s with 16 top-ten chart-toppers. At their onset in 1951, the couple sold six million records. Over time, the pair churned out a string of popular jazz standards, their biggest being “How High the Moon.” The hits featured Mary harmonizing with her own vocals, singing closely to the mic, giving the recordings a very intimate sound. From 1953 through 1960, Paul and Ford also hosted a syndicated television program, The Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home Show, and kept recording until they divorced in 1964. Watch a classic video clip from the show, below.
2. Lita Ford
After rocking with Joan Jett as lead guitarist in the Runaways, Lita Ford took her pop-meets-heavy metal guitar heroics solo and hired Sharon Osbourne as her manager. In 1988, producer Mike Chapman (Blondie, The Knack) helped Ford concoct her breakthrough album, Lita, packing it with gigantic, glossy arena pop-metal hooks and catchy concepts. The spicy, riff-heavy album not only pleased die-hard shredders but also got the mainstream’s attention with focused, digestible hits. Sweaty rocker “Kiss Me Deadly” and ballad “Close My Eyes Forever,” the latter a duet with Ozzy Osbourne, both reached the top 15 of the Billboard 100 chart. Although Ford never lived up to her true potential, especially after alternative rock’s rise in the ‘90s, she was at the pinnacle of ’80s arena rock.
1. Joan Jett
A down-to-earth player who, in a few strums, can get an entire audience chanting to her early-‘80s chart-topper, “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” Joan Jett made a name by playing sincere and simple rock ‘n’ roll. In the process, she became a role model for numerous generations of female rockers. The leather pants-sporting player carries a large-scale range of influences, from undying ‘50s and ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll to primal three-chord punk to glam. Her brand of rock ‘n’ roll is loud and organic, with larger-than-life hooks in the mood of AC/DC and the Stones. Jett’s boisterous, tough-chick attitude is simply the icing on the cake. Many have tried, but few rival her personality-packed chops, genuine delivery and “real deal” vibe.